Margo Cilker is an interesting artist – a Pacific Northwestern songstress with a desert-bound sort of soul. But instead of cowboys and murder ballads, her brand of alt-country is centered on drinking wine, the strangeness or modernity, and traveling through California. Her debut, while solid as a whole, struck me more in small-but-powerful moments (“Chester’s” in particular has been haunting my brain for years now).
For anyone who’s played through Pohorylle, it’s undeniable there are certainly some sadder themes speckled throughout. Valley of Heart’s Delight, most immediately in name, shows a change of tone: “I’ve been wanderin’, I’ve been movin’,” Cilker notes on “Santa Rosa”, and it’s this wide-eyed sense of adventure that serves as a central theme on the record. Earlier on, “I Remember Carolina” serves as a more thorough map of Cilker’s travels through a pseudo-zydeco romp – and when the lyrics turn to Texas, so does the instrumentation. Valley of Heart’s Delight is a joyous album of displacement, with sounds and lyrics motifs collected from near and far for a sort of audio stamp book.
Just like last time, Cilker’s storytelling is the foundation for these songs. Whether it’s reflecting on the resilience of a steelhead trout, pondering how time changes people for the worse on “Crazy or Died”, lamenting the waning effects of caffeine on “With the Middle”, or looking for a steady place to rest on “Lowland Trail”. And while some of these subjects might not sound too interesting on paper, rest assured these songs are wrapped in metaphor and self-referential ethos that calls listeners to find the wonder in the simple and unassuming moments of life. And while there are plenty of bliss-driven outposts present, any journey has its share of rugged, sketchy gas station detours: “With the Middle” and “Crazy or Died” see Cilker deal with personal and social darkness respectively, though her talent with the pen certainly is no weaker here. It’s the same energy from “Wine in the World” off Pohorylle that shows plenty of skin.
Instrumentally, there’s a varied mix of slower, folky ballads, classic country barn burners, and the aforementioned zydeco and Cajun bits. To simply call it a country record feels reductionist, but it might work easiest from one angle. Cilker and team are not reinventing anything, but they are certainly recomposing. There’s a timelessness on this album, not in the sense that it simply feels vintage, but that it truly bears both the strengths of down-to-earth old-time songs and the sort of youthful honesty only present in an age of mental health taboos being lifted. Cilker deftly avoids dwelling on any particular piece of commentary too long, but it’s hard to miss it when it does come up. But ultimately, nothing ever feels forced or sold as a branding statement. Cilker’s music is ultimately a complex mixture of the human experience.
Valley of Heart’s Delight is bigger and bolder than its predecessor. Take the triumphant and horn-driven “Keep It On a Burner” that casually quips about being “stuck in Lodi again” (a not-too-subtle CCR reference). Its fullness takes Cilker’s strong songwriting and brings it to new heights. “Santa Rosa” is a playful reflection on the past and present converging in a dinner, capped off with harmonica and banjo. But even the simpler moments like album closer “All Tied Together” show the power in Cilker’s voice and a set of cowboy chords. This record is brighter, fuller, and more consistent – a feat that was surely not simple to accomplish.
Valley of Heart’s Delight is available everywhere on 9/15.